Misguided Adventures in Stale Knowledge Repositories

Greg Bloom, the founder of the Open Referral project, recently published a project Year in Review. He opened by succinctly telling the story of Open Referral:

We started Open Referral to address a systemic problem: it’s hard to find trustworthy information about the health, human, and social services available for people in need. We have many sources of community resource directory information — with more emerging all the time — but they all struggle to sustain themselves while trying to meet the diverse needs of their communities, and competing with each other (by default or by design) along the way.

We know that it shouldn’t be technologically hard to solve this problem by enabling community resource information systems to cooperate with each other — but it will take a movement to make it happen.

Not only is this a very clear description of the problem Open Referral is trying to solve, this is a very clear description of a problem that many communities have.

Many communities of practice that I work with have a simpler, but no less nefarious version of this same problem. Sharing resources and articles seems like high value, low-hanging fruit. This often takes the form of sharing information in-flow — on mailing lists, Slack, whatever the group’s primary messaging system might be.

This generally works well enough. Contributing and consuming are both easy, and there’s no cost to the information going stale, because you’re using a channel that’s essentially disposable. Sometimes, the channels even include searchable archives, which give you some measure of persistence.

At some point, someone almost always has the bright idea to compile a repository of resources on the web. This almost never works well. People are rarely thoughtful or — more importantly — iterative about figuring out how to contribute, curate, and consume these resources. And so these projects fail.

There aren’t good turnkey solutions for this. The reason is that it’s a hard, context-dependent problem. Good solutions are possible, but you have to commit to being iterative and experimental. If you’re not already iterative and experimental, you can get there through commitment and practice. Doing so is, ultimately, a social challenge, not a technical one.

Greg is grappling with a harder problem, but he’s doing it the right way — by treating it as a social problem, and incorporating technology in a thoughtful way. It’s really cool to see a lot of hard work start to pay off.

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